"Breathe. Breathe. There’s always a way out."
"Redbelt", the newest film from playwright, writer & director David Mamet, is different from his previous films while offering some familiar touches for the die-hard fans.
Like most Mamet films, "Redbelt" involves a con.
Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Inside Man", "Dirty, Pretty Things", "American Gangster") owns a martial arts studio in a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles. His wife, Sondra (Alice Braga) works days trying to start her own decorating business and then speeds over to the studio to help her husband handle the finances, or lack thereof. She begs him to go to her brothers (played by John Machado and Rodrigo Santoro ("300", "Love, Actually", TV's "Lost")) who own a nightclub nearby. But they aren't interested in giving Terry another loan when he won't do them a simple favor; they want him to compete in the upcoming Jujitsu championship they are sponsoring because their promoter (Ricky Jay) wants him on an under card, to give the proceedings more respectability. But Terry doesn't believe in competition. It weakens the soul. Just as he is about to leave the club, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), an action movie superstar, walks into the bar and offers to buy a woman a drink. Her boyfriend begins to attack and Terry steps in. Later, back at the studio, Terry and Sondra fight when a harried attorney, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer) rushes in looking for some help because she just sideswiped a car. Distracted and on edge, Laura almost causes a big accident and Terry is able to smooth things over. Both Laura and Chet seek to show their gratitude and Terry becomes enmeshed in a web of lies and deceit carefully planned to get him to do one thing.
David Mamet is a masterful writer, deftly moving back and forth between the stage and screen, yet his films have enjoyed limited, but respected releases. I think part of the reason for this is Mamet uses a very distinctive voice for his dialogue, giving his characters a rapid fire, constant stream of words to say. While this is unnatural, and takes some getting used to, once you do, the effect is usually great. Mamet does this to achieve a certain effect. His characters frequently repeat parts of their dialogue a number of times. Naturally, a large percentage of the public isn't going to like or be able to appreciate this type of writing. And that limits the audience for his films.
In "Redbelt", Mamet tones this down considerably. There are moments when characters repeat things, but it seems more natural. Perhaps, due to the delivery. Whatever the case, the dialogue in this film seems much more natural, much more realistic than in previous Mamet films. I am both happy and sad to see this. I am happy because perhaps this change will hopefully allow Mamet to find a wider audience for his films and sad because his trademark staccato dialogue is not as evident, or as distinctive, allowing the film to leave less of an indelible mark.
Because the manic delivery of the dialogue is toned down considerably, the characters seem more natural, more realistic. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Terry, a jujitsu instructor struggling to keep his small school afloat. Terry has ideals, very definite morals, and he doesn't want to give them up under any circumstances, even if it means his small business fails. Terry is one of the best jujitsu instructors, and one of the best practitioners of this art, and the reputation of his name could provide respectability to any venture. That is exactly what people want, his name, his respectability. They are trying to bring jujitsu to the same level of popularity as the WWE, and that means a lot more money for everyone involved, and also a lot more corruption and problems. Terry doesn't want any of this and Ejiofor brings this across with his every movement, his every breath. He seems to slow down any time he has to even talk about the upcoming competition because the thought of it seems to depress him. And he perks up anytime he thinks someone legitimately wants to use his services, or learn the art of his teachings, or to talk about anything else. He is trapped in this world by his love of the sport and must wade through the bad every day in an effort to co-exist with the very thing he loves.
Naturally, this also makes him the perfect Mamet target. Because Terry is so pure, and so intent on retaining his ideals, everyone else in this story is against him. As Terry becomes more adamant about not taking part, the other people become more persistent in trying to pull him into the web of deceit and betrayal. As he becomes more aware of the extent of this betrayal, the involvement of more and more people becomes clear to this man who only wants to practice an art he has a gift for.
Tim Allen provides an interesting, unexpected performance as Chet, the action movie star. A 'Bruce Willis' type, he has everything. Fame, money, a huge mansion, a beautiful wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife). When he realizes how Terry has helped him, he wants to help repay him and makes him an advisor on his newest action film, a war epic. Chet doesn't care that a jujitsu expert isn't exactly needed on a film about the Iraq War. He also gives Terry a gift and makes his new best friend a member of his inner circle.
Emily Mortimer plays a young, very frantic lawyer who speeds through the rainy streets of Los Angeles looking for a pharmacy before it closes for the evening. In her haste, she sideswipes a car near Terry's studio and asks for help. It quickly becomes apparent she could use help of a different type and signs up for lessons with Terry.
Both of these people initially seem to be godsends to Terry. But as he becomes embroiled in the story, they may have a connection to the con. It is a testament to each actor and Mamet that both create memorable, interesting and absorbing characters who always seem believable.
The rest of the supporting cast is less memorable. Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife, has a barely there supporting role as Chet's wife, who takes a liking to Sondra, Terry's wife and tries to help out her fledgling design business. But the role is so small, and insignificant, I was surprised. Usually, his wife plays the female lead in his films. Lindsay Crouse starred in "House of Games" with Joe Mantegna and Pidgeon starred in "The Spanish Prisoner" and other projects directed by her husband. And Joe Mantegna plays Chet's manager. He gives the role a valiant effort, but he can't be as mysterious and creepy as he is supposed to be. It just doesn't work.
Mamet has written films and plays dealing with a variety of issues and corruption on a number of levels. The subject matter for "Redbelt" seems a little odd for the well-respected writer; it just seems like a different world for him, and something he would have to research very hard to become familiar with. In fact, Mamet has been practicing jujitsu for a number of years, so he does have a knowledge of the people who practice this and this gave him an entry into the world, allowing him to become more familiar with all aspects of the practice. My initial surprise is unfounded, because a writer of Mamet's caliber would never write about something he didn't understand or have at least a good working knowledge of. He has to be able to make the story and the characters real, believable, before placing the mechanics of the con on top of this framework.
And no one is able to make this type of story work like Mamet is. He slowly, and deliberately introduces characters to us, inviting us into Terry's world and then seems to gleefully expose their part in the con, much to the confused amazement of his lead character, Terry. Some of these characters are more completely formed and more integral to the story, giving many of the less successful characters the feel of 'guest star' and making the end result uneven.
As Terry becomes more and more embroiled in the plot, and realizes who is involved, he seems to sink lower and lower, unable to help himself but become more involved in all of the shenanigans.
"Redbelt" is good Mamet, not great Mamet. But even good Mamet is better than no Mamet at all.